Le Castellet, © Marva A. Barnett

Thinking Reflectively in the Humanities:
A Cross-Cultural Study

Marva A. Barnett
Summary of Work in Progress

Background of the study

In part because thinking involves extraordinarily complex mental processes, it is intellectually healthy to know what types of thinking we value. Thus I have undertaken a study of quality, educated, reflective thinking: the thinking so often prized in the humanities as central to developing well-informed, astute citizens. (The term “reflective thinking” comes to me, with my gratitude from John Dewey, How We Think, NY: D.C. Heath, 1933.) Certainly, interest in how we think dates back at least to Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates and manifests itself in many works on critical and creative thinking published in the last two decades.

To shed new light on these issues in the United States, I compare educated American, French, and English people’s perceptions of the thinking they value and ways in which such skills are developed. These two Western cultures represent traditions, educational systems, and values different from those of Americans, yet not hugely variant; comparisons thus highlight subtle distinctions in value systems and styles of thinking.

The nearly 100 informants are in most cases teachers and students at highly regarded academic institutions of secondary and higher education in their respective countries, including the University of Cambridge, the Lycée Henri IV in Paris, the University of Virginia. They responded on audiotape to several open-ended questions about their perceptions of and experiences with “effective thinking.” In looking for similarities and differences among the perceptions of people inside each culture and among the different cultures of these three countries, I of course also encounter the effects of a variety of other “cultures,” such as informants’ academic disciplines, work environment, age, family background, and so on. This study works with these different perspectives to develop insights into reflective thinking.

Attributes of reflective thinking

Not surprisingly, despite some cultural differences associated with geography and academic discipline, those interviewed generally believe that reflective humanistic thinking includes some basic attributes, including these:

  • Reflective thinking is a habit of mind and systematic.
  • Reflective thinkers are open-minded.
  • Their thinking is individual, manifesting itself in diverse ways, and independent.
  • Reflective thinkers are tenacious, persevering in asking questions and seeking answers.
  • They are will to take some risks.
  • They are willing take on the challenge of thinking reflectively.
  • They find reflective thinking satisfying.

Reflective thinkers think in these ways:

  • They proceed from a sense of curiosity, or inquiry.
  • They are self-reflective, recognizing the need to examine one’s own assumptions.
  • They question everything.
  • They take evidence into account.
  • Their thinking is ordered, developed (some would say logical).
  • They think for a purpose; their thinking has appropriate aims.
  • They evaluate throughout the process but save final evaluation and decision for the end, after having questioned, reflected, examined evidence, ordered their thoughts and evidence.
  • Having evaluated, they proceed to develop a clear argument meant to persuade.

Of course, the act of thinking requires that one perform these thinking tasks and maintain these states of mind in interactive, iterative, and complex ways; reflective thinking thus resembles a musical fugue. By comparing and contrasting diverse cultural perspectives on these attributes of reflective thinking, I am working to define and expand each attribute, hoping eventually to provoke others to reconsider their own understanding of thinking in the humanities.